Playing in Graveyards: When Terror Collides with Larp

This is the text from the Nordic Larp Talk I gave in Helsinki, Finland in spring 2012. You can see video of the speech, which included some slides, here — I encourage you to explore the website to watch other great talks on Nordic larp.

Since I’m a journalist, not a designer, today I’m going to tell you a story about a group of urban larpers I encountered while reporting for my narrative nonfiction book, Leaving Mundania. Their story didn’t make it into my book, but I found them fascinating.

It’s not easy to organize a larp in New York City, primarily because space – especially in Manhattan – is cramped and expensive. Two hundred dollars – about the max game budget for the larp community I encountered, will barely buy you a cheap hotel room in Manhattan, let alone enough space for dozens of vampires and werewolves.

In the mid 1990s, larpers gathered at a goth club that ran vampire night, but when it closed down, they were out of luck. The local group was a racially, educationally, and monetarily diverse mix of college kids, professionals, and self-proclaimed street kids from the wrong side of town. The group played primarily White Wolf games – games focused around factions of vampires or werewolves fighting for power.

They handled the venue issue by finding free public spaces in Manhattan, the central borough of NYC. They larped in parks and public parking lots.  But hanging around parks late at night can be sketchy, non-skanky public bathrooms were hard to come by, and in the winter, NYC gets cold. Not Finland cold, I know, but still, it had a chilling effect on their games.

Finally someone found the Winter Garden, a huge indoor public space, heated in the winters, and air-conditioned in the summers. It was convenient to multiple subway lines, open until four in the morning, and it had public bathrooms, indoor trees, restaurants, and a nice view of New Jersey, straight across the water. Its location in the financial district, right next to the World Trade Center, became a convenient in-game hook. Vampires and werewolves gathered here because it was the seat of power. The Winter Garden quickly became the primo larp grounds in New York City, hosting a couple different games each month.

The larpers made friends with the security guards. Different vampire and werewolf games ran on different nights, and frequently they’d play until the building closed, then head over to a local sandwich shop to run downtime scenes and gab about the evening’s session. Sometimes tourists snapped photos of them, but of course, if bystanders noticed players, than the players could be called out for breaking the masquerade.  It felt deliciously transgressive to play in the Wintergarden. Of the place itself, a larper named Crystal told me, “There were so many places to interact, so many norms watching us. We’re talking about ‘bombs’ and people with assault rifles. People would pause and come over and ask about about the group. “Oh, we’re an improvisational acting group. We’re playing an improvisational game.””

And then. And then. [photos]

9/11 changed a lot of things that are bigger and more important than the local larp scene, but it changed the local larp scene.

For starters, the larpers temporarily lost their space, since the Winter Garden was about 500 feet from the twin towers. The explosion smashed the windows, destroyed the pedestrian bridge that led from the towers to the Winter Garden, and killed many of the palm trees. The city spent 50 million dollars fixing the Winter Garden, which was the first major structure to be rebuilt after the attacks. In September 2002, President Bush attended the re-opening ceremony.  The larp community did not return for another year, but even then, the scene had changed into something more fragmented, not merely because they’d lost their central larp grounds, but because the attacks changed the larpers themselves.

The attacks made some larpers more resolute than ever to continue playing, as if nothing had happened, because terrorist attacks are only successful if they cause terror. Some players sank into the games as a way of escaping the bleakness of reality.

Some players had lived near to the Twin Towers, or had family members who lived or worked close by, and didn’t feel up to roleplay. One larper who lived 20 blocks from ground zero told me, “I got covered in dust. You weren’t there. I was. I played at the Winter Garden. It was a place for me to go to do something that I really loved where I could be happy. It was taken away from me. I was angry at the terrorists for blowing it up, I was angry at our government for letting it happen and not doing their job in maintaining defense, I was angry at all the people around the US who bought the government’s line and went to war, and I got angry at the whole debacle in the middle east and all the kids who were getting killed by being sent there. I didn’t have that much rp [roleplay] in me at that point.”  His girlfriend ended up moving out of state, in part due to emotional repercussions from being covered in dust that was once people.

When vampire and werewolf games finally did return to the site, many players got their first glimpses of the area since the attacks. Of his first time back after the attacks, a longtime larper named Warren told me, “We had to walk over the bridge from the subway; it was my first time looking at the flat earth, the construction machines sitting idle. It was almost a solemn feeling. It didn’t have the same “I’m going to game excitement.” Everyone did take a little bit longer to get into the flow of things. Once they did, it felt just like old times again, especially because I was seeing people I hadn’t seen in a while. It felt like an old shoe you haven’t put on in a while and then you walk around and it feels like old times. Walking back across the bridge was uncomfortable again.” Later, he told me, “When the games end there’s always a lot of joking around and socializing on the walk to the trains. I remember the walk to the train from the first game back. No one was laughing.” Another gamer mentioned that a few people hung behind to say a prayer over the excavation area.

The man who lived 20 blocks from the Twin Towers was also more impressed with the location than with the game itself. He said, “the first game back it felt kind of weird. You could still see the towers from the Wintergarden, and I didn’t look up at first, until it was night, and when I finally looked up, you could see the stars. The towers were so big and they were so well lit. They were a whole city block. The light dimmed out the stars. I went “wow, I’d never seen the stars before” I remember sitting by the marina and thinking “I never thought I could see the stars from down here.””

The comparison between the often-violent nature of the larps and the attacks was not lost on this larper. He reminisced to me, “When perdition was there, the Sabbat attacked the Camarilla [two factions of vampires] by blowing up the towers, a long time before the towers went down. They flew something into the towers too, it was very uncanny. You don’t want to think about that. You’re playing make believe and [when] something out of your make believe world happens, it makes you kind of sick to your stomach.”

In fact, the relationship between in- and out-of-game terrorism would grow problematic. Beginning around 2006, a number of different GMs made several attempts to incorporate 9/11 plots into vampire and werewolf games, but met with reluctance and resistance on the part of players. Such plots are often viewed as in poor taste and a little too close to home.

This tension, the tension between GMs who want to run plots with serious, solemn implications, seems at odds with the desire of players to take a weekend off from the daily grind. There’s a sense too, that some things are not meant to be played, that some events are too sacred to recreate, even if such recreation might be informative or therapeutic. And then, too, there is the sense that the script is already written – this act of terrorism has already happened, and it is not possible to prevent it in game, only to prevent the next act. We can re-write our own reaction – probably without prison torture, or invading the wrong country – but we can’t re-write that indelible act itself. And to try to do so seems sacrilegious, seems to diminish the lives already lost, to make their terrible final moments into a farce.

This dilemma, to bring the real into game or not, is an issue for many US larpers. In my book I profile a lifelong larper, WWII reenactor, and a former soldier named Jeffrey McLean who has four deployments under his belt, three of which were post-9/11 deployments to Afghanistan and Iraq. For years he played a shining hero in his local game, which meets about two hours outside of New York City, a paladin of one of the game’s gods of light. But somewhere around his second or third deployment, his character became less fun, with the fantasy world echoing the reality he experienced on the ground. Certain aspects of the character – the way he stood in a doorway protecting a family, for example, roused unpleasant feelings and memories in Jeff, memories that he didn’t care to relive. His character tended toward zealotry, and Jeff had seen the effects of zealotry firsthand. At first, he didn’t understand why the game roused such unpleasant feelings in him, but eventually he acknowledged that he had PTSD and sought help. And yet, all of his hobbies – war gaming, WWII reenactment, and high fantasy larp have to do with war. Maybe these games offer him a safe space in which to relive and deal with what he saw on deployment, a way to revisit it in an environment where he has some control over circumstances and outcome, an argument in favor of including realism in larp. Maybe he larps because in a synthetic reality, everything has meaning and heroism is still possible. He may have started out as a hero paladin, but twelve years and four deployments later, he can’t play that role anymore. Instead he’s created a new character and a new history for himself, a man named Radu Dragovic, a gravedigger.

His story echoes that of the Wintergarden larpers. The intrusion of reality into a fantasy world can be disruptive and life changing, both literally and metaphorically. I suppose I shouldn’t be surprised that a major world event affected the subculture that I reported on, but I was surprised that it affected this community so directly, by destroying the community’s physical playground and altering the psychic landscape of the larpers who gamed there. One woman couldn’t bear to walk across the bridge where the towers once stood anymore; she’d always come up with some excuse, something she needed at the store, an errand she had to run, to avoid seeing the space. And others still haven’t been back. As another larper told me, “My ghosts of the past and the ghosts of those who died are there. It’d be like ‘playing in a graveyard.”

2 thoughts on “Playing in Graveyards: When Terror Collides with Larp

  1. Pingback: Three Speeches on Nordic and American larp » Lizzie Stark

  2. Wonder if LARPers can still run games down there – I mean, it sounds like a GREAT venue – accessibility, heating [in winter]/cooling[in summer] wise, etc.

    Yeah, it’d be a distance to travel to run a game, but considering I know few places in the area to run games where I don’t have to be hesitant about getting people pissed off, worried about getting arrested for having boffers on us, etc, might as well ask.